A Mercer Island School District opinion research report released on Thursday recommended plans to build a new school and enlarging a second one as having the best chance of success with local voters to alleviate overcrowding in Island schools.
Opinon research firm Triangle Associates, Inc. presented residents several options over the past six weeks in a public comment process and, based on community feedback, ultimately recommended choosing "Option 1b": a new elementary school on the "Mega Block" (at the so-called "North Mercer Campus", a 6 acre area currently occupied by the CHILD Institute, Youth Theatre Northwest and several preschools), rebuilding part of Islander Middle School, and building a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) addition onto Mercer Island High School at an approximate cost of $70.3 million.
Triangle was careful to qualify its support for the proposal, however, by urging the school district to continue the public outreach process that it had begun.
"For the strongest chance of success, the process (needs to) slow down to enable continued community outreach," the report said.
The report said that if the School Board felt they must ask local voters to pass a bond by 2013, that "thoughtful and robust" communication efforts should continue and that the choices should be further narrowed to two options, rather than immediately moving ahead. It also recommended the overall cost of any plan should be in the range of $50 to $75 million, and the proposal should be "as simple as possible."
"Quickly moving forward with a bond measure at this point in time comes with serious risk and is not something that Triangle recommends," read the report. "The Board’s making a decision at this time would bring significant negative perceptions for a few reasons: residual mistrust over perceived past property management (e.g. partnering with the Boys and Girls Club of King County on the PEAK facility and selling the land now housing the Community Center some thirty years ago), concern over traffic impacts around the Mega-Block, community desire to see a long-term facilities plan, lack of understanding about 21st century education facilities, etc. These factors point to the need to develop additional information and responses to questions that have been raised, and to continue outreach and dialogue with the community and City leaders."
The recommendation would also add an additional $450,000 per year operating expenses of the sixth school until enrollment is high enough for those costs to be offset by state and levy funding.
Triangle also recommended including Mary Wayte Pool and Islander Stadium as a proposition, but as a separate issue and perhaps at a later time in an effort to distinguish repairs, maintenance and improvements to those facilities as seperate from the overcrowding issue.
The school district is currently 723 students above design capacity with a 2012-2013 school year enrollment of 4,270 — and the population of school-aged children on the Island is projected to continue increasing over the next ten years. School district enrollment is expected to hit a 35-year high of over 4,300 students by 2014, according to a recent demographic study released last month conducted by an MISD consultant.
The recommendation is in stark contrast to an ambitious recommendation made last fall by a panel of citizens, called the 21st Century Facilities Planning Commission (21CFPC), which suggested the best solution to overcrowded schools was rebuilding the three elementary schools and middle school as modern, two-story buildings that would support the MISD's "2020 Vision", a forward-leaning education curriculum to best equip local students for opportunities here and abroad. The recommendation was largely adopted by the MISD and ultimately priced at $196 million and ultimately failed in the April 2012 special election, garnering only 41 percent of the vote.
For more on the study, review the entire report attched as a .pdf file to the right of this story.